Written by William Dobson
Here is my alphabet of Middle Eastern food and drink. Most of them are pretty obvious, even for those who aren’t that well acquainted with the cuisine of the region, but this is only a beginner’s guide. I’ve limited myself to one reference per letter, so it’s not at all extensive (otherwise this could have been even longer and even more boring) but there are a few lesser known dishes and ingredients in there as well and, hopefully, a few ‘fascinating’ nuggets of information for those interested in the history and etymology of food in the region (although that’s probably limited to me). Failing that, this could also be used a tool for teaching the alphabet to children who are already showing a particular aptitude for learning about other societies, cultures and cuisines.
A is for Arak: a highly alcoholic spirit distilled from fermented grape juice and popular in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. It has a strong aniseed flavour and is usually drunk with water which turns it a cloudy, milk colour. As such, it’s often called ‘lion’s milk’. Similar to Turkish Raki and Greek Ouzo.
B is for Baklava: a sweet pastry made from layers of filo, filled with chopped nuts, such as pistachio, and then sweetened with honey or sugar syrup. Although the exact history is ambiguous – many countries claim it as their own – the general consensus is that, in current form, it was developed in the kitchens of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. It’s now ubiquitous across the region and hugely popular.
C is for Château Ksara: Lebanon’s oldest, largest and and most visited vineyard dating back to 1857 when Jesuit monks inherited and started farming a 25 hectare plot. Although not well documented in the West, Lebanon’s wine tradition dates back 5,000 years to the time of the Phoenicians. Nowadays, Château Ksara consistently produces excellent wines, in particular their rosés.
D is for Dolma: can be used to refer to any number of stuffed vegetable dishes, but commonly used to described the popular Middle Eastern dish of vine leaves stuffed with rice, herbs and spices etc. The etymology comes from the Turkish word ‘to be stuffed.’ As such, the minibuses which act as shared taxis around Istanbul, crammed full with far more than the recommended capacity, are used colloquially by the same name. In the Levant this dish is known as either wara’ enab or yalanji.
E is for Eggplant: I loathe to use this American word for ‘aubergine’ but this popular vegetable is, unfortunately, generally known as eggplant in the region when written or said in English. It’s used in a variety of mezze dishes such as baba ghanoush (see below), moutabal, mousakka (originally an Arabic dish, simple meaning ‘chilled’ which is, as the name suggests, served cold. Unlike in Greece, it doesn’t contain meat).
F is for Falafel: Deep fried balls made from ground chickpeas, this dish has long been a staple of the Middle East and has now, of course, spread to the rest of the world. Often served in a flatbread wrap, like a kebab, with salad and tahini yoghurt, falafel is also served on its own as part of a selection of mezze. Said to originate from the Cairene Coptics as a substitute to meat during Lent, due to chickpeas’ high protein content.
G is for Ghanoush: Baba ghanoush is a Levantine dip made from roasted aubergine, to give it a lovely smoky flavour, mixed with tahini paste and other seasonings. Usually topped with jewel-like pomegranate seeds to give it a slightly sweet and sour kick, as well as a splash of colour, it is very similar to moutabal. Quite where the name originates from is obscure – apparently it means ‘father of coquetry’ – but it is certainly one of the more interesting and exotic sounding dishes around.
H is for Hummous: In actual fact, hummous is just the Arabic for ‘chickpea’ although it is also used to describe the dish that has taken the West by storm. Although it has been eaten for centuries in the Middle East, our current obsession with it is a fairly new phenomenon. Annual sales in the USA now reach over $300 million. It is made with pretty much the same ingredients as baba ghanoush (chickpeas substituted for aubergine), although there are plenty of different varieties such as hummous beiruti, which has the addition of parsley and paprika, or hummous bil lahm, which is served with thinly sliced bits of seared lamb and pine nuts.
I is for Ice Cream: Although common in the region, Middle Eastern ice cream is somewhat different from what we might expect. Called ‘booza’ in Arabic, the most famous example is sold in an ice cream palour in Damascus. Called Bakdash, it’s located right in the heart of Souk Al-Hamidiyeh and has been serving ‘booza’ since 1885. It is covered with pistachio and has slightly elastic texture from the mastic and salep which is used to make it. Absolutely delicious!
J is for Jibneh: A simple Arabic cheese, with a soft texture and a similar taste to feta. Probably originally made from goat’s or sheep’s milk, cow’s milk is now more common. It is very popular in the Gulf but also used in the Levant to make burek jibneh or ‘cheesy pie’.
K is for Kebab: Much maligned in the UK, where they are synonymous with a late night, booze-induced unhealthy snack that you wouldn’t consider eating sober. In actually fact, a good kebab can not only be delicious, but also very healthy and they make up an important part of Middle Eastern cuisine. The common consensus is that the word originally came from the Akkadian ‘kabaabu’ meaning ‘to burn or char’ and, as such, covers almost all grilled or roasted meats in the region. Here we tend to use the word kebab interchangeably for both meat (or vegetables for that matter) skewered and then grilled, which is technically a shish kebab (şiş being the Turkish word for skewer) and a döner kebab (which literally translates into rotating kebab in Turkish). Known in the Arab world as a shawarma, the meat is roasted slowly on a vertical spit. Originally invented by a chef called Hacı İskender in Bursa, a city in the north west of Turkey, in the 19th century.
L is for Lahm Meshwi: A type of kebab which is on pretty much every restaurant menu across the region, this consists of cubes of lamb which have been marinated with a mix of spices – for instance, cinnamon, allspice, cumin etc. – as well as lemon juice and garlic before being char-grilled. Usually served as a main course, either as a dish in it’s own right or as part of a mixed grill. Known as sha’af in Damascus, where it is accompanied by delicious bits of fat which literally melt in the mouth.
M is for Mansaf: A traditional Bedouin dish of tender lamb, poached first in water, before being recooked in spiced yoghurt or, more authentically, rehydrated jameed (fermented dried yoghurt), flavoured with the stock from the lamb, and mixed with rice. The name literally means ‘explosion’, presumably in reference to the taste rather than any effect it may have on one’s bowels. It’s presented on a large plate in the centre of the gathering for people to scoop up themselves with flat bread; a Jordanian biryani if you will. In the past it was reserved for special occasions and weddings but, as Jordan has urbanised, so too has mansaf and it has now become the national dish of the country.
N is for Naranj: A type of citrus fruit which is very common in Old Damascene houses. Very similar to what we would call an orange (in Arabic ‘Bortuqaal’ from the country ‘Portugal’), but sourer in taste. Because it is so prevalent in the Old City, the air is redolent with the scent of orange blossom. The etymology of our word ‘orange’ actually comes from naranj, which was probably originally a Persian word. It is also the name for perhaps the best restaurant in Damascus, situated right next to the Roman Arch on Straight Street, which was made famous when Sarkozy dined there with Al-Assad.
O is for Okra: A vegetable with either West or East African origins, depending on whom you choose believe, which has become an important part of Middle Eastern cuisine. Also known as Lady’s Fingers, on account of its thin and delicate looking shape, it produces a characteristic slime when cooked. It is generally used as a component in a thick lamb stew.
P is for Pomegranates: Another fairly obvious one, this fruit is native to Iran. The pith is inedible but the seeds have a delicious sweet and sour taste. It is used in a number of different ways, from adorning dishes such as baba ghanoush to the juice being reduced down to a thick, syrupy molasses which is used to add a sour tartness to stews and sauces.
Q is for Qat: The leaf of this plant is chewed as a stimulant and is popular in East African countries, such as Somalia and Kenya, but most famously in Yemen. It is a euphoric and also suppresses hunger (I once went 36 hours without eating after one particularly heavy session). Other effects include loquaciousness, enhanced concentration and a sense that time is momentarily suspended (I’ve found that at least). Less enjoyable side-effects include dribbling green gunk and resembling a hamster storing food in its cheek. While it is often glorified by Westerners (myself included) as an example of an ancient tradition, the social problems it causes in Yemen are actually quite severe. Estimates suggest as much as 55% of the country’s water is used to grow the plant, a problem exacerbated by the already severe water shortage there, and something like 14 million man-hours are spent/wasted (depending on your opinion) chewing – or ‘storing’ to translate from the Arabic – by Yemenis every day. Although outlawed in every other Middle Eastern country, the drug is perfectly legal in Britain. In fact, I know a very reliable dealer in Middlesbrough called Mohammed. Get in touch if you’re looking for a contact!
R is for Ramadan: The month of fasting in Islam. While often seen as a month of hardship in the West, it can actually be a wonderful and vibrant time to visit the region. Once the sun has set, people emerge and quench their thirst and hunger by devouring the most delicious feasts, known as ‘iftar’. It can almost feel like Christmas every day as you starve yourself in anticipation for the huge meal awaiting you in the evening. The month ends with Eid-Al-Fitr, three days of celebration revolved around eating. As well as food and drink, fasting also includes intercourse, smoking and, slightly ironically, getting angry. The latter is often the most difficult to adhere to for starving, thirsty, sexually frustrated and nicotine deprived individuals!
S is for Shish Tawook: A chicken kebab found all over the region. Made from marinated cubes of chicken, as with the lahm meshwi, it is then char-grilled. The name is of Turkish origin, meaning ‘skewered chicken’ but has been adopted into the Arabic of the Levant. Usually served with flatbread and a garlic sauce called ‘toum’, similar to the European aioli.
T is for Tajine: A conical pot used to cook stews in Morocco and, as such, also used as an umbrella term for any number of dishes cooked inside it. Although it has been popularised in the West on account of constant eulogising by less than intrepid celebrity chefs, one incredibly renowned individual stated that, despite it being a ‘diverse, versatile and undoubtedly tasty dish,’ it is little more than the Middle Eastern equivalent to ‘a Cornish pasty.’
U is for Urfa kebab: A mince meat kebab which originates from the Turkish city of Şanlıurfa, or Urfa as it is more commonly known. The city is located close to the Syrian border and was once ruled by the Eyalet (or Province) of Aleppo under Ottoman control. It is famous for its cuisine, in particular its kebab culture, which is influenced by both its Turkish and Aleppan heritage. The city is also said to be where kibbeh niyyeh (effectively an Arab steak tartare made from lamb) originates. The Urfa kebab is very similar to the Aleppan kebab (kebab Halabi).
V is for Vegetarian: The Middle East is a vegetarian’s dream, although they do miss out on all the wonderful kebabs. Mezze, in particular, tend to be vegetarian, reflecting both the scarcity of meat and also the wonderful produce that grows in the Mediterranean sun. The herbs and spices which are so readily used in cooking also elevate otherwise bland and mundane ingredients into something really special.
W is for Warka: A cross between very thin pastry and a crêpe, quite like filo, used in Northern African cuisine, in particular Tunisia. Similar to a samosa in India or börek/burek in Turkey and the Levant, in Tunisia it can be used to make ‘brik’ which can have any number of different fillings, from simply cheese or egg to something more elaborate such as minced lamb or even crab.
X is for eXceptional Food: Finding any word that begins with X is difficult enough but trying to find one in a language where the equivalent letter doesn’t exist is near impossible. If anybody can come up with a dish or ingredient used in Middle Eastern cooking that does indeed start with an X, then a prize will be winging itself your way!
Y is for Yabani – Arabic for Japanese! One of the best sushi restaurant I’ve ever had the pleasure to go to, this famous restaurant in Beirut is one of many Japanese restaurants that are popping up in Lebanon’s capital. Deliciously fresh fish, expertly prepared and a fraction of the price compared to anywhere in the West.
Z is for Za’atar: A Lebanese mix of dried herbs, usually containing thyme, oregano and marjoram and sometimes including sumac, salt and sesame seeds. Also, often used interchangeably as the Arabic word for any one of the previously mentioned herbs, all being closely related. The dried mix is especially good with lamb, in particular when it has been slow-roasted, and it is also very commonly used as a topping for mana’eesh, a mini-Levantine style pizza which is eaten for lunch or breakfast. Zaatar w Zeit is also the name of a fantastic fast food chain, originally from Beirut but now with a couple of restaurants in Dubai, which serves delicious wraps and other Lebanese fare.